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  • Understanding Small Intestine Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

You’ve likely heard of colon or stomach cancer, but the small intestine? Not so much. Yet small intestine cancer, while not as common, is just as serious and deserving of our attention. Let’s shed some light on this often overlooked form of cancer.

Key Takeaways

  • Common symptoms of small intestine cancer include nonspecific abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss, whereas rarer symptoms such as cutaneous flushing and bronchospasms may point to specific types like neuroendocrine tumors.

  • Risk factors for small intestine cancer encompass genetic predispositions, including conditions like Crohn’s disease, lifestyle elements such as diet, and behaviors including smoking and alcohol consumption.

  • Treatment approaches for small intestine cancer range from surgery to remove tumors and affected lymph nodes to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and participation in clinical trials.

Recognizing Small Intestine Cancer: Symptoms and Early Warning Signs

Illustration of human digestive system

Small intestine cancer, a silent invader, often manifests vague symptoms, complicating early detection yet making it significant for effective treatment. Nonspecific mid abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, and gastrointestinal bleeding are some of the most common indicators of stage small intestine cancer. Seeking medical advice becomes essential if you observe any of these symptoms.

While these symptoms are quite common, there are also rarer signs that are linked to specific types of small intestine cancers. For instance, neuroendocrine tumors may cause symptoms such as cutaneous flushing, diarrhea, and recurrent respiratory symptoms due to bronchospasms, a condition known as carcinoid syndrome.

Common Symptoms

Abdominal pain and weight loss are two of the most common symptoms of small bowel cancer. The cancer disrupts the absorption of nutrients, raising the body’s energy needs, and leading to unexplained weight loss.

In addition, small intestine tumors can grow large enough to obstruct the passage of food and fluids, resulting in symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and alterations in bowel movements. Early identification of these symptoms can notably enhance the prognosis of small intestine cancer, as well as detect any potential issues in the large intestine.

Rare Symptoms

On the other hand, small intestine cancer can show less common symptoms, particularly when linked to specific tumor types such as neuroendocrine tumors. These can manifest as:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Weight loss

  • Intestinal bleeding

  • Skin flushing

  • Diarrhea

  • Frequent urination

  • Increased thirst

  • Dizziness

  • Shakiness

  • Skin rash

Carcinoid syndrome, associated with carcinoid tumors, may present with distinctive symptoms such as:

  • Fever

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Abdominal pain

  • Telangiectasias

  • Wheezing

  • Jaundice

  • Heartburn

  • Hot and red facial flushing

  • Diarrhea

Recognizing these rare symptoms could help in the early detection of these specific types of small intestine cancers.

The Science Behind Small Intestine Cancer: Causes and Risk Factors

Photo of genetic testing equipment

The development of small intestine cancer isn’t just about bad luck. Studies suggest that a blend of genetic and lifestyle elements can heighten the risk. Genetic conditions such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and other digestive conditions can increase the risk of small intestine adenocarcinoma due to chronic inflammation in the small intestine.

Additionally, lifestyle contributes significantly. Habits such as smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol, and certain types of food have been linked with an elevated risk of small intestine cancer.

Genetic Factors

In the development of small intestine cancer, genetic predispositions hold great significance. Conditions such as Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, or HNPCC), and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS) have all been linked to an increased susceptibility to small intestine cancer.

Even immune disorders like Crohn’s disease and celiac disease have been found to increase the risk of small intestine adenocarcinoma due to the chronic inflammation they cause. Certain genetic mutations such as:

  • TP53

  • KRAS

  • APC

  • SMAD4

  • PIK3CA

  • CDKN2A

  • ARID1A

are also frequently observed in small intestine cancer.

Lifestyle Factors

Speaking of lifestyle risks, diet assumes a crucial role. Consuming a diet rich in red meat, fish, and sugar-sweetened beverages, while lacking in dairy, coffee, and whole grains, has been associated with an elevated risk of small intestine cancer. Diets high in fat and low in fiber have also been linked to an increased risk.

In addition to diet, smoking and alcohol consumption have been associated with an increased risk of small intestine cancer, although the data specifically linking smoking to small intestine cancer is limited. Obesity is another risk factor, as the excess body weight can result in heightened levels of insulin and related hormones, which could potentially stimulate cancer growth.

Diagnosing Small Intestine Cancer: Tests and Procedures

Illustration of medical imaging tests

The detection of small intestine cancer involves a multi-stage process comprising various tests and procedures. Imaging tests such as:

  • Endoscopy

  • MRI

  • CT scan

  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan)

are often utilized to detect any abnormalities and determine their location and size.

An endoscopy, which involves inserting a slender, flexible tube with a camera into the digestive tract, allows for a visual examination of the esophagus, stomach, and the initial segment of the small intestine. A biopsy may also be performed during an endoscopy to collect tissue samples for further testing.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests such as endoscopy, MRI, and CT scans play a vital role in identifying and evaluating suspicious lesions in the small intestine. These tests can discern the location and size of small intestine cancer, providing crucial information for clinicians.

CT scans, in particular, are invaluable in assessing the spread of small intestine cancer. They provide a detailed visualization of the small intestine and surrounding areas to identify tumors and can examine whether the cancer has extended to nearby organs, tissues, or other areas like the lungs and liver.

Endoscopic Evaluations

Endoscopic evaluations are key in diagnosing small intestine cancer. They involve using an endoscope to inspect the small intestine and may include the use of a small catheter to obtain tissue samples for biopsy.

Upper endoscopy, also referred to as esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD, is frequently employed for diagnosing small intestine cancer as it enables doctors to inspect the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. While these procedures are generally safe, potential complications may include bleeding, esophageal narrowing, and puncture or perforation of the small intestine.

Treatment Options for Small Intestine Cancer

Photo of surgical instruments

Upon diagnosing small intestine cancer, several treatment options become available. These options are determined based on several factors, including:

  • The type of cancer

  • Its stage

  • Location

  • Characteristics of the tumor cells

  • The patient’s preferences

The primary treatment for small intestine cancer, particularly adenocarcinoma, is surgery, with the aim being to eliminate the tumor and any impacted lymph nodes. Other treatments may include chemotherapy or immunotherapy, which can be used alongside surgery or to treat metastatic small intestine adenocarcinoma.

Surgical Treatments

Surgical treatment for small intestine adenocarcinoma typically involves:

  • Removing the tumor

  • Removing some adjacent healthy tissue

  • Removing lymph nodes

  • In cases where the cancer is located in the duodenum, a portion of the pancreas may also be removed.

While surgical intervention is the primary treatment, it may also be considered for small intestine adenocarcinoma that has metastasized to other parts of the body, albeit infrequently. In such cases, surgical management may be employed for metastasectomy and addressing resectable peritoneal carcinomatosis.

Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy

Other vital components of small intestine cancer treatment include chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy involves administering pharmaceutical agents to eradicate cancerous cells. These agents, including Capecitabine, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), Oxaliplatin, and Irinotecan, are selected based on the specific characteristics of the cancer and the objectives of the treatment.

Radiation therapy complements chemotherapy by utilizing high-energy X-rays or other radiation to eliminate cancer cells or reduce tumor size. However, like all treatments, chemotherapy and radiation therapy come with potential side effects, such as:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Diminished appetite

  • Alopecia

  • Oral ulcers

  • Fatigue

  • Skin alterations in the treated area

Targeted Therapies and Immunotherapy

Representing the frontline of small intestine cancer treatment are targeted therapies and immunotherapy. Targeted therapy involves identifying weaknesses in cancer cells and utilizing these weaknesses to destroy them. Recent advancements involve the creation of medications that specifically target actionable molecular biomarkers expressed by these tumors.

Immunotherapy, on the other hand, enhances the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. A combination of two next-generation immunotherapy drugs has demonstrated encouraging clinical activity in the treatment of patients with refractory small intestine cancer.

The Role of Clinical Trials in Advancing Small Intestine Cancer Treatment

In cancer treatment, clinical trials serve as the powerhouses of innovation. They play a critical role in testing new therapies and approaches, and enrollment in clinical trials is recommended for all patients with locoregional and metastatic adenocarcinoma.

Perhaps one of the most promising areas of research in small intestine cancer treatment is the field of targeted therapies and immunotherapy. These treatments have the potential to be more effective and cause fewer side effects than traditional therapies.

Current Clinical Trials

Current clinical trials delve into novel treatment options for small intestine cancer. These include different chemotherapy regimens and targeted therapies aimed at enhancing patient outcomes.

Recent advancements in chemotherapy regimens being tested in clinical trials involve:

  • Examining combination therapies like ramucirumab with paclitaxel

  • Evaluating the survival advantages of systemic chemotherapy treatments

  • Focusing on the effectiveness of targeted therapy drugs such as bevacizumab (Avastin) in combination with traditional treatments.

Future Directions

The future of small intestine cancer treatment is bright, with researchers exploring personalized medicine and novel immunotherapies. Personalized medicine refers to the customization of medical treatment for patients based on their personal history, genomic profile, and specific biomarkers.

In addition to targeted therapies, innovative immunotherapies are also under development for small intestine cancer. A combination of two next-generation immunotherapy drugs has demonstrated encouraging clinical activity in the treatment of patients with refractory small intestine cancer.

Living with Small Intestine Cancer: Support and Resources

Illustration of support group meeting

Living with small intestine cancer poses emotional and practical challenges. Emotional support is crucial for managing the psychological effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Family and friends can provide companionship, assistance in decision-making, and a supportive presence during cancer care.

From a practical perspective, individuals diagnosed with small intestine cancer may face obstacles such as challenges in diagnosis, complications in treatment, and the necessity for continual management and follow-up. Several organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, offer resources to support their treatment and daily needs.

Emotional Support

Various sources, including professional counseling and support groups, can provide emotional support. Some benefits of professional counseling include:

  • Emotional support

  • Coping strategies

  • Enhanced communication

  • Decision-making assistance

  • Support for caregivers

Support groups can also provide emotional support, a platform for sharing experiences, and practical guidance. Online communities, such as Cancer.Net and ASCO’s website, offer expert-vetted information, resources, and support for patients.

Practical Support

Practically, patients might encounter challenges like maintaining a healthy weight, sticking to a nutritious diet, and engaging in regular physical activities. For financial challenges, organizations like CancerCare and the American Life Fund provide financial assistance to patients with small intestine cancer.

For those interested in participating in a clinical trial, they can seek ongoing trials on reputable websites like the National Cancer Institute (NCI) or at prominent cancer research centers. It’s always crucial to seek guidance from healthcare professionals to identify suitable trials and understand the participation procedure.


Understanding and managing small intestine cancer can be a challenging journey, but with the right knowledge, support, and resources, it is a journey that can be navigated with resilience and hope. From recognizing early warning signs to exploring cutting-edge treatments, every step brings us closer to better outcomes and improved quality of life for patients.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symptoms of cancer in the small intestine?

Symptoms of small intestine adenocarcinoma can include abdominal pain, weight loss, and anemia, among others. Be sure to consult a doctor if you experience any concerning symptoms.

What is the survival rate of small intestine cancer?

The survival rate for small intestine cancer largely depends on the stage at which it is diagnosed and treated. Individuals with localized small intestine adenocarcinomas have a 5-year survival rate of about 85%, while for metastatic cases, the rate drops to 42%.

Can small intestine cancer be cured?

Yes, when small intestine cancer is localized at the time of diagnosis, the majority of patients can be cured.

What genetic factors can increase the risk of developing small intestine cancer?

Genetic conditions such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and certain genetic syndromes like Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Lynch syndrome, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS) can increase the risk of developing small intestine cancer. These factors can significantly raise the likelihood of developing small intestine cancer.

What imaging tests are used to diagnose small intestine cancer?

Imaging tests such as endoscopy, MRI, CT scans, and PET scans are commonly utilized for the detection and evaluation of small intestine lesions. These tests aid in diagnosing small intestine cancer effectively.

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